Review by George Simmers
This is a very good example of the middlebrow political novel. Lettice Cooper was a committed socialist, and in part is preaching the need for social change, but she follows many other novelists of the period in positioning herself as the voice of common sense, against all extremes (the way of writing summed up in the title of Philip Gibbs’s 1923 condition-of-Europe novel, The Middle of the Road ).
National Provincial is a large-scale and rather sprawling panorama of West Riding life and politics in the mid-1930s. Out in the wider world Mussolini invades Abyssinia and Hitler takes over the Rhineland;the League of Nations has failed the serious challenge of the dictators. These events are on the book’s periphery, but add to the characters’ sense of unease and approaching crisis.
The novel begins with Mary Welburn who, since someone needs to care for her invalid mother, returns from London to Aire, a city clearly based on Leeds. Her job as a reporter takes her to various places where she learns about local politics and the city’s web of social relationships.
Everyone in Aire feels that the world is changing; some feel that it is changing too fast, others too slowly. Almost everyone is dissatisfied. The factory workers are unhappy with how they are treated, and also with the Union that does not bring them everything they want. Some of the well-off are uncomfortable with their social position, feeling that and that they are on the wrong side in the coming battles.
The city is divided by political beliefs and class antagonisms, but it is also drawn together by family links and personal relationships, which can cross the political barriers, sometimes in unexpected ways.
A main character is Stephen, son of the traditional gentry, but working for a nouveau riche manufacturer of ready-made clothes. Increasingly disturbed by the social tensions of the time, he is drawn towards socialism.
His employer, Ward, is a ‘grey, dry’ man who has devoted his life to making money. He has wealth and a mansion but no friends; his children, Marjorie and Leslie, chafe under their father’s control and make friends that he disapproves of. At the local University, Leslie comes under the influence of academics who draw him towards a left-wing extremism that fulfils his need to rebel against his father, but leads him to disaster.
John Allworthy (heavily symbolic name) is the representative of Old Labour, a man who has given his life to working for the Union. Experience has taught him that politics is the art of the possible; when the workers demand an extra penny an hour, he negotiates hard, gets them another halfpenny and thinks he has done well. This leads him into conflict with his nephew Tom, an idealistic socialist who wants no compromises. Tom leads the workers in Ward’s factory out on unofficial strike, breaking the agreement that the Union has negotiated. Predictably, this ends badly.
The novel’s cast is large, and it takes a long while to establish them. At about page 180 I was wondering whether anything dramatic was ever going to happen – almost everything up to then had been exposition – and sometimes a bit more explanation than the reader actually needs. Soon, though, we are into the disastrous strike, and the slow build-up pays off, since we know a great deal about the people who are affected by it in their various ways. The subsequent municipal election campaign gets even more interesting.
Analysing divisions, the novel presents various kinds of snobbery. Old money looks down on new money; the aspirational working class despise those who remain in domestic service; established residents look down on newcomers brought to a new housing estate by a slum-clearance programme; and some of those newcomers are uneasy about the fact that they have been joined by their former Irish neighbours from the slums, whose boisterous lifestyle threatens to bring all the incomers into disrepute.
Cooper’s presentation of snobbery is sharp and amused; when it comes to politics, though, her own prejudices show through strongly. Committed to the centre-left, she distrusts all extremists, especially the Communists, whom she presents as opportunists, and as working out their own personal grievances through the medium of politics. She is annoyed with them, and also with the rank and file who are too easily led. The implication is that if only people acted carefully and sensibly, the much-needed social reform would happen, since there are men and women of goodwill in all parties. (The Conservative candidate who takes advantage of the left’s disunity to promote his own agenda is actually one of the most sympathetic characters in the book.)
An interesting minor theme of the novel is psychoanalysis. I gather that Lettice Cooper herself underwent Freudian analysis and found it a valuable experience. The same happens to Clare, a character who otherwise plays little part in the plot. I find it interesting that the novel’s analyst is not presented as a remote expert, but as a man of middlebrow common sense. At an art exhibition he is unimpressed by the surrealist pictures with their obvious Freudianism, but is much more taken with conventional landscapes and portraits. His therapy, of which we are given a few examples, is really a matter of helping people to look at themselves in a common-sense way, and to be wary of extremes of thought and feeling that might mislead them – one of the key themes of the typical middlebrow novel.
Suggesting that the provincial is a model of the national, Lettice Cooper in this novel is applying her psychoanalyst’s method to England; she is asking her reader to acknowledge his or her dreams, but to be careful of fantasies, and to act rationally to make life better for everyone.